Defending champion Danell Leyva grabbed the early lead at the US men's gymnastics championships Thursday night, sneaking past John Orozco in the final rotation with a polished parallel bars routine.
Leyva, also the world champion in the event, scored 15.800 points to finish at 91.850, just ahead of Orozco's 91.8.
Leyva and Orozco were more than a point ahead of Sam Mikulak, the 2010 junior champion. Chris Brooks and Jonathan Horton rounded out the top five as the US Olympic picture began to take shape.
This was the first step in four-round, three-week test of nerves. The scores from this weekend will be combined with the scores at the Olympic trials at the end of the month, with the gymnast earning the top overall total locking up an automatic Olympic spot.
Barring injury, Leyva is considered a near certainty to head to London but he cemented his status as the front-runner by delivering a consistent performance on a night in which the top five competitors were separated by a narrow 1.550.
Leyva had the top scores on high bar, parallel bars and was second on pommel horse, allowing him to overcome so-so efforts on still runs and vault.
The 20-year-old saved his best for last. He entered the final rotation 15.750 behind Orozco but roared back in front with a smooth 45-second routine on the bars. He nailed the landing, his stepfather and coach Yin Alvarez exploding off the floor in celebration.
The score easily topped the 15.633 Leyva posted while winning the world title in the event last fall, capping two hours in which a handful of familiar faces showed they will be considered a legitimate threat to reach the podium in London next month.
Five of the top six scorers made the world team last fall, the only exception being Mikulak, though had a pretty good excuse.
The sophomore from Michigan missed this event a year ago after breaking both of his ankles during a freak accident at an international event. He bounced back to finish second in the all-around at this year's NCAA championships and put together the kind of steady performance that showed he's ready to compete at the sport's highest level.
Mikulak scored in the top 10 in five of the six events, his only wobble coming on floor when he gingerly stepped out of bounds leading to a hefty deduction that took him out of the running for first.
It's a spot Orozco appeared to have locked up for much of the evening. He finished in the top 11 in all six rotations, getting a reprieve from the judges on pommel horse, who raised his initial score from 13.75 to 14.650 after a review.
Though he was nipped at the end by Leyva, Orozco continued to build on his promising spring and break up the expected duel between Leyva and Horton.
Leyva edged Horton at nationals last year and Leyva jokingly asked Horton on Wednesday if he was ready to finish second again.
Horton's not quite there yet but appeared to be all the way back in his first full competition since breaking his left foot at worlds. He struggled on pommel horse -- as usual -- but overcame it by putting together a dazzling high bar routine. The 26-year-old joked ''I'm tired'' as he trudged toward vault, his final rotation, but drilled a solid 15.700 to cement his return to form.
He hovered in the top five throughout and was joined by former Oklahoma teammate and best friend Brooks, who soared up the leaderboard with a thrilling vault. Brooks exploded off the table with a front handspring, before flipping twice in the air. He landed on the pad with a thud and didn't move before clapping his hands and following it up with a fist pump.
The competition continues Saturday.