LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Three years ago Steven Holcomb was the class of the field in four-man at the bobsled world championships on his home track. This time he's in a dogfight.
Holcomb, who beat the great Andre Lange of Germany by nearly a second in the 2009 worlds at Mount Van Hoevenberg, rallied on his second run Saturday to gain a slim lead over Maximilian Arndt of Germany midway through the four-man race.
Trailing Arndt by 0.15 seconds after a mistake-filled first run, Holcomb and his crew of Justin Olsen, Steve Langton and brakeman Curt Tomasevicz made up the deficit with the help of their second straight 4.97-second start, the best starts of the day. That put USA-1 just 0.01 ahead heading to Sunday's final two heats.
"It was an interesting position to be in," said Holcomb, who won the two-man last week, a first for the United States since the competition began in 1931. "I made some big driving mistakes the first run, but a big push from my guys kept me in the mix. The second run was much better, but I still have a couple of places I can fix and make up some more time."
Holcomb had a two-run time of 1 minute, 48.92 seconds on a snowy, windswept morning in the Adirondack Mountains. Defending world champion Manuel Machata of Germany was third, 0.28 behind, and world cup champ Alexsandr Zubkov of Russia was fourth, 0.43 behind.
American John Napier was disqualified after push athlete Adam Clark slipped and fell out of USA-2 at the start, spoiling a day that began with high hopes.
"I heard some scraping, so I knew there wasn't a guy in there," Napier said. "It's just frustrating. We crashed at the Olympics and this was kind of our feeling -- to come back and redeem ourselves. That first push we had a lot of errors. We were going to clean them up on the second one. Mistakes just happen."
U.S. rookie Nick Cunningham and his crew of Jesse Beckom, Johnny Quinn and Dallas Robinson were in 14th in USA-3, 1.64 seconds behind Holcomb.
"The guys are doing great," said Cunningham, who was unable to capitalize on the fifth-best start of the first heat. "I've been given the push crew to kind of win this thing and they've really stepped up. I've really got to work on these next two runs to get back in the mix. Right now I'm driving backwards, and that's never good in a sport like this. I've got home-field advantage, and I'm not taking advantage."
After the first heat, it essentially became a race between the top four sleds. Arndt held that small lead over Holcomb, and Zubkov and Machata were tied for third, only another 0.04 behind. Edwin Van Calker of the Netherlands was next closest in fifth, and he trailed Arndt by 0.41, an imposing deficit in a sliding sport.
Lyndon Rush, who finished second to Holcomb in two-man, was 11th. Like most of the teams, Rush struggled at the top of the 19-turn layout, going late into the second turn and never managing to regain his line.
Teammate Justin Kripps fared even worse despite a terrific start that left him only 0.03 behind Arndt at the top. Kripps finished the run in Canada-2 just over a second behind in 15th place, but it didn't much matter. He was disqualified for being overweight.
Just like he did in the two-man competition, Holcomb was dissatisfied with his opening run on Saturday and went quickly to social media between heats, tweeting: "Well, it wasn't my cleanest run. Gonna clean it up and hunt down the Germans."
Holcomb then had a 54.58-second run, the fastest of the heat.
"I knew coming out today that the Russians and Germans weren't going to make it easy," Holcomb said. "It wasn't going to be like a couple of years ago. But it's a good race so far, and I'm happy to be going into tomorrow with the lead. But we can't get ahead of ourselves."
The tricky track also took Oskars Melbardis of Latvia out of the medal hunt. Melbardis, who finished fifth in world cup and was sixth after the first heat, flipped near the bottom in the second and crossed the finish line in 56.29 seconds to fall to 17th, nearly 2 seconds behind.
"Surprisingly, after all this -- two miles of runs and all these mistakes and people flipping and hitting walls, going into skids -- and you end up a hundredth ahead is really pretty amazing, actually," said Holcomb, who was winless in world cup this year.
Holcomb's victory in four-man three years ago was the first triumph for the United States in four-man at world championships since Arthur Tyler won at St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 1959. Holcomb's not exactly banking on another gold just yet, but promises to be difficult to beat.
"It will be pretty tough," Machata said. "Like everybody on his home track, he has great runs here. We'll see what the two runs tomorrow bring. Anything can happen."
There's a lot riding on the outcome for the U.S. team.
"This is pretty much the biggest race of the year," Holcomb said. "It doesn't matter what you do all season. With our funding coming from USOC, this is what they look at. This is basically a dry run for the Olympics.
"It wasn't a perfect day. The good thing is the weather was terrible and it's still an even race. It's still a good race."