INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - A year ago, Alex Tagliani was the last starter in the Indianapolis 500 field.

This year he could be on the pole.

The Canadian's surprising month at Indianapolis continued Saturday when he topped 226.2 mph on all four of his qualifying laps Saturday and took the early lead in the pole chase. His average of 226.392 mph was barely better three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves' 226.388. Scotland's Dario Franchitti was third in early qualifying at 226.156.

Castroneves, however, beat Tagliani's mark on his second attempt, going 226.774 in midafternoon, setting up what could be a two-man duel when they have to requalify.

"With this particular number, it's nice to know I won't have to go through what I did last year," Tagliani said. "But, you know, I'm glad I went through the roller-coaster things."

Perhaps those memories will help when Tagliani has to do it all again to win the pole during a 90-minute "shootout" among the nine fastest drivers.

But Tagliani's first Indy start did teach him one lesson: Leave nothing to chance.

At the end of Bump Day last year, Tagliani was sitting in line as the final gun went off without a spot on the 33-car starting grid. He made the race only because Conquest Racing owner Eric Bachelart put Tagliani into a car qualified by Brazil's Bruno Junqueira.

Now they're back as teammates with the FAZZT Racing Team, co-owned by Tagliani.

Tagliani's first run virtually assured the 38-year-old driver he wouldn't have to replace Junqueira to start this year's race.

"It's not a surprise," said Castroneves, the defending champ and a three-time pole winner. "He's been fast, especially yesterday. He's on a new team and with a good organization and he's a good driver and they've shown they can do a good job."

The hard part starts later Saturday afternoon.

Under the new pole-qualifying format, Tagliani and other eight drivers in the front three rows will be required to make at least one qualifying attempt. Each driver could make up to two and the winner of that qualifying session will have the most glamorous pole in the IndyCar Series.

The top nine are locked into the first three of three-car rows, even if they crash in the "shootout."

Race officials will fill the top 24 spots Saturday.

The bigger concern might be the changing track conditions.

Saturday's sunshine and warm temperatures were a stark contrast from this week's practice sessions and many drivers complained the 2.5-mile oval had become slick and tough because of the winds.

Three cars crashed in the second turn Saturday, including 2004 series champion Tony Kanaan, who hit the wall before completing the first of his four qualifying laps. Kanaan had the third-fastest lap of the week before Saturday and was considered a pole contender. That changed when he did a 180-degree spin coming of the first turn, then rolled backward through the short chute and spun back around and up the track into the outside wall of turn two.

"The car is just totally skating across the track, and there's no grip," Danica Patrick said moments after seeing her teammate crash. "My mechanics took tons of time to make sure it was fast and slick and no drag. It's there, it's just that the setup's not there."

How strange was Saturday?

None of the five Andretti Autosport was among the top nine after one run through the qualifying line.

And Patrick wasn't even the fastest woman on the track. The speed on her qualifying laps steadily dropped from 224.873 to 223.428, giving her an average of 224.217, 18th on the grid after one run through the line.

Swiss rookie Simona de Silvestro was 17th after going 224.228.

But KV Racing Technology had the worst day.

Former Formula One driver Takuma Sato hit the second turn wall during the morning practice session and was taken to a local hospital for X-rays on his back. Paul Tracy, the runner-up in the disputed finish of 2002, pulled into the pits before taking the green flag because he couldn't shift to his top gear. And then, just before Kanaan hit the wall, Mario Moraes spun in the second turn and hit the wall, too.

Moraes and Kanaan were both released from the infield medical center and cleared to drive -- though it was uncertain how quickly the teams could get their backup cars ready to run.

Tagliani avoided that mess, though he will have to make another qualifying run if he wants to keep the pole.

"Last year, we didn't want to withdraw our time and we got bumped," he said. "Now they're forcing us to do it. I'm not for it (the format) right now, but I have to vouch for the sport."