It began in the wooded North Carolina hills right after World War II, when a bunch of good ol' boys would gather "for a fun evening with friends and go out and challenge each other," remembered Junior Johnson.

The weapon of choice was the automobile. The drivers may or may not have honed their skills by running moonshine liquor through those same hills, just a tailpipe or two ahead of the federal revenue agents.

"But most everyone had knowledge of bootlegging," Johnson acknowledged. "They knew people who had those fast cars."

Johnson was one of those people, a local legend who had served a bit of time when they caught him with his hand in the still, so to speak. He had gone on to become one of the most famous of all stock car drivers, immortalized in a 1965 Esquire magazine article by Tom Wolfe titled: "The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!"

"A lot of people who didn't know anything about racing wrote a lot of letters and stuff telling me how much they enjoyed that article," says Johnson. "I have no doubt it did a tremendous lot for the sport. It needed a push at that time."

The appeal of Winston Cup racing, NASCAR's major league of stock car racing, is no longer regional, it is nationwide. It would be difficult to imagine the sport becoming much more popular. All but one of this year's 29 races was a sellout.

"The grandstands are all full. You've got to order tickets a year or two in advance," noted Geoff Bodine, who drives Johnson's Bud Thunderbird. For the last three years, promoters at the Bristol (Tenn.) Raceway have taken out radio spots urging fans not to go anywhere near the track on race night unless they have tickets.

"There's been just a tremendous explosion since I got in Winston Cup in 1982," says Bodine, who is at the forefront of the new breed of stock car driver.

No longer do you have to speak with a drawl and have two first names to be a star on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit. Bodine and his brother Brett hail from upstate New York. Rusty Wallace and Ken Schrader are from St. Louis. Alan Kulwicki and Dick Trickle are from Wisconsin. Derrike Cope, the surprise winner of the Daytona 500 who since has won another Winston Cup race, is from Washington state.

But Geoff Bodine was the trailblazer. There had been other northern drivers; Fred Lorenzen of Elmhurst was one of the early stars.

But when Bodine pulled up stakes in 1979 and ventured south, "the others had disappeared," he said. "Dave Marcis was there, and he had come from Wisconsin, but otherwise I was the only one.

"I decided if I ever wanted to make my move, I needed to do it then. I was winning all those races up in the Northeast, but it wasn't getting me where I wanted to go. So my wife Kathy and I took a big gamble. We just packed up and moved.

"You've got to," says Bodine, citing the case of Ronnie Bouchard, another northern driver who chose not to move south, "and now he's a car dealer. He's making lots of money, but he is not in auto racing."

While the Esquire article about Johnson boosted stock car racing back in the mid-'60s, almost everyone connected with the sport seems to agree the real catalyst has been television. Since 1985, every Winston Cup race has been on TV.

"Television did a great thing for our sport," says Johnson. "It carried us all across the country. People can relate to the everyday automobile anyhow, and they'd heard about our kind of racing. Then they see it on television and see what a professional effort goes into it."

"I think television's been the main thing," agrees Chip Williams, media coordinator for NASCAR. "It's like trying to get a kid to eat something he's not familiar with. If you can get him to try it, he might like it.

"People are seeing us now. Maybe some Sunday they get rained in, they turn on the ballgame and it's no good, so they watch a little bit of the race and get hooked."

And sometimes a pretty big fish may take the bait.

"The thing I see happening," says car owner Rick Hendrick, "is a lot more sponsorships. There used to be just 10 or 15 teams with major sponsorships. Now it's more like 30. And it's a much broader field now. It used to be just beer and tobacco."

Sponsorships, said Johnson, who has been as successful as a car owner as he was as a driver, "gives you the opportunity to get the finances it takes to upgrade the sport to a high level."

Bodine has seen the ever-increasing attendance and the proliferating sponsorships, but "the biggest change," he says, "is the competition has gotten a lot tougher. There's more good cars, more good teams, more good drivers. The racing is so good you never know who is going to win {many NASCAR races feature extremely close finishes}. It's a good show. It's a great show."

Racing fans obviously agree, and even more of them may be showing up because of the Tom Cruise-Paul Newman movie, "Days of Thunder." The film had its genesis when Hendrick met Cruise and Newman at Road Atlanta some years ago.

Hendrick says that Cruise drove around the 2 1/2-mile oval track at speeds "about 188-190 miles an hour. When he got out he said, 'This is great. I'd love to make a movie about this.' "

There is a certain apprehension among the stock car racing community about the film's impact. Racing movies in the past have run the gamut from mediocre to miserable.

"It could be a lot of help," says Johnson. "It depends on how the movie's done. If it's bad, it could blemish the sport."

"People who think stock car racers are a bunch of rednecks, if the movie's bad, they'll still think that way," says Williams. "If the movie's good, it could really have a major impact. The worst that will happen is things will be status quo."